Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Favorite-Record Profile #4: Vaughan Williams' Oboe and Tuba Concertos

Deutsche Gramophone 2530 906 (LP) (1977) 

Deutsche Gramophone 419-748-2 (CD) (2008)

DG (Eloquence) 4428 333 (2007)
Vaughan Williams: Concerto for Oboe & Strings
Concerto for Bass Tuba & Orchestra
The Lark Ascending
Neil Black (Oboe)
Arnold Jacobs (Tuba)
Pinchas Zukerman (Violin)
Daniel Barenboim/Chicago SO (Tuba Concerto)/English Chamber Orchestra

What a delight to have this wonderful record back in my collection after far too long an absence, thanks to the good people at Australia-Universal's Eloquence imprint. These are some of the most ravishingly beautiful Vaughan Williams' performances ever committed to disc, and the original LP was one of the most treasured items in my substantial collection.

There have been a number of  good recordings of the a-minor  Oboe Concerto since its first performance in 1944. The piece was originally composed for the great English oboist, Léon Goosens, but in recent times, nobody else has played it with Neil Black's perfectly modulated grace and impeccable phrasing. Black's tone quality is full and colorful, but always mellow, never raucous or overly nasal; he brings an expressive depth and poignancy to this music lacking in so many other versions, which, by comparison, sound detached and almost mechanical. The shimmering strings of the English Chamber Orchestra provide a gorgeous, gossamer-light accompaniment, never obtrusive or overpowering. Listen, for example, to the light, yet full, rich pizzicato figurations in the buoyant middle Minuet movement. This performance further benefits from some of the best recorded sound DG achieved in the 1970s.

Less often heard is the surprisingly serious Concerto for Bass Tuna and Orchestra (1954), a piece that could all-too-easily be treated as a novelty. Yet, listening to the lyrical slow movement, one is immediately taken with the affective power of this music, a sense of the composer's loving attention and desire to do something unique without falling back on gimmickry or cliché. Here Barenboim leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with their principal tuba, Arnold Jacobs in a rollicking, tuneful, and thoroughly convincing performance, expertly recorded.

Pinchas Zukerman's lovely reading of The Lark Ascending (1914) is a worthy disc-mate to the concertos. One of Vaughan Williams' most popular and often-performed concerted works, the piece has fared especially well on record with notable, state-of-the-art sound  in each succeeding decade (Hugh Bean with Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia (EMI, 1967), Iona Brown with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-on-the-Fields (Decca (Argo), 1972)). DG's 1977 recording is lithe and luminous, doing perfect justice to the work's lush textures. Zukerman's playing is appropriately characterful and understatedly inspired. This performance surely ranks among the very best.

The Eloquence re-issue also features Vaughan Williams' ever-popular Fantasia on Greensleeves along with several short works by Delius and Walton, which are fine, if not among the very finest available recordings of this repertory. In any case, it is a pleasure finally to have all of Barenboim's Vaughan Williams on a single disc with superior re-mastered sonics.

Enthusiastically recommended.

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